Baloji, the Belgian-Congolese rapper, explores a familiar set of themes with an artful and impressionistic touch in his directorial debut Omen (Augure).
Premiering in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, the magical-realist drama tackles displacement and belonging through four characters who’ve been ostracized by their communities. The musician pulls from his personal experiences and uses a visual language honed in his short films, like 2018’s Zombies, to craft a beguiling tale.
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The journey begins with Koffi (Marc Zinga), a young Congolese man living in Europe with his white fiancée Alice (Lucie Debay). We see him preparing for an upcoming trip to Democratic Republic of Congo, where he hopes to amend his relationship with his family. Koffi’s birthmark — a large Rorschach-esque blot — frightened his mother, Mujila (a sharp Yves-Marina Gnahoua), when he came out of the womb. She labeled him a sorcerer and sent him to Europe.
Like Koffi, Baloji dealt with a similar kind of estrangement. The artist’s name means “sorcerer” in Swahili and, in interviews, he’s attributed that to his interest in magic, witchcraft and how society assigns labels. Baloji’s curiosity translates into confidence as a director. He leans into a kinetic visual language and associative sequencing, bringing the nonlinear and energetic style of his shorts to Omen.
Koffi, who hasn’t spoken to his family in years, is anxious about the reunion. Not wanting anything to go wrong, he has taken Swahili lessons and saved money to pay his father the equivalent of a dowry before marrying Alice. Koffi quietly hopes the news of his fiancée’s pregnancy will soften his parents and make them more willing to accept him.
When the cosmopolitan couple lands in Democratic Republic of Congo, Baloji, with the help of DP Joachim Philippe, effectively portrays their sensory overload. Forgotten by Koffi’s younger sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire), Koffi and Alice rent a car and drive through the unnamed city streets themselves. Koffi’s unsteadiness behind the wheel leads to confrontations and near-collisions. His short hair, unkempt beard and sweat-blotted shirts mark him as an outsider.
The situation only gets worse when Koffi and Alice arrive at Koffi’s mother’s place to an unimpressed crowd of family members. Here, Baloji, who also wrote the screenplay, demonstrates a particular acuity when it comes to rendering the African diasporic experience. Koffi becomes the subject of loud, pointed comments about his hair and indirect ones whispered about his fiancée. In one particularly impressive scene, when Koffi asks to hold his newborn nephew, Baloji nimbly and humorously shows the disconnection between the protagonist and his family. The child’s mother agrees, but as the camera pans out, you see her pleading eyes trying to catch Mujila’s attention. Koffi coos at the child, unaware that to his family he is still a stranger.
After a nosebleed causes Koffi to spill blood on the child — a moment that sends the family into a panicked frenzy — he must see a local priest for cleansing and accountability. Baloji uses Koffi’s agnostic attitude toward these rituals to comment on the allure of modernity and the anchor of tradition in African societies. The tension between the two undergirds Omen, though Baloji’s film sees them as complementary forces; tradition and modernity indeed are not binary for younger Africans. In a later section, which follows Koffi’s sister, Tshala, the young woman goes to the same local priest to solve a medical problem. Like Koffi, Tshala considers herself removed from the traditions of their upbringing. She’s reluctant to go to the priest, but does so anyway; that eventual acquiescence reveals her own internal tension.
Omen moves from Koffi to the story of Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), a kid who has monetized his label as a sorcerer. He’s a magician that Koffi and Alice pass by on a walk through town. In Omen, as in Zombies, Baloji’s associative transitions reward close attention. The camera swerves from the couple in a heated conversation through the marketplace, spans the crowd and then goes up to Paco and his gang. These tracking shots give the film a propulsive sense of motion.
That constant feel of forward movement coupled with energetic music (composed by Liesa Van der Aa) and intricate costume design (Elke Hoste, Baloji) make Omen easy to be enthralled by. The film feels like a mixtape — a collage of samples organized by the director’s eclectic taste. Baloji not only pulls from his experiences in Europe as a Congolese musician, but also borrows from the U.S. too: Many of the costumes in parade scenes were inspired by the colorful palette of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Omen’s narrative is similarly experimental, but doesn’t always feel as rewarding. Baloji’s diffuse storytelling and penchant for the surreal can make the main narrative difficult to follow. Even when the relationships between Koffi, Tshala, Paco and Mujila (the subject of the film’s final section) seem clear, too many open-ended questions and contrivances leave us in doubt. It made me wonder if Omen might have worked better as an anthology of shorts — like the New York African Film Festival centerpiece film Hyperlink — where connections are suggested but not required. Baloji has constructed four fascinating characters, played persuasively by these performers, but trying to figure out where their arcs overlap, even faintly, too often distracts from the beauty before us.
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